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The best by far: 10 years in, ‘Far Cry 2’ is still the most exciting of the series

No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to the important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special … Or not.

The release of Far Cry 5 this week came and went for me. At this point, I’ve joined the parade of Far Cry games, starting in earnest with popular, but frustrating Far Cry 3. That game irked me with a story that showed a lot of promise, but couldn’t find a way to blend its themes of calling out video game violence with actually making a ton of money peddling video game violence.

As a player who’s interested in how games can tell interactive tales, a brand new Far Cry isn’t especially intriguing.

The stories in Far Cry games haven’t really improved since then. Far Cry Primal, a game starring tribes of early humans, basically threw out the idea of a story altogether. In 2018, as a player who’s interested in how games can tell interactive tales, a brand new Far Cry isn’t especially intriguing.

Instead, I dialed back to a decade and dived into the Far Cry title I’d never gotten to — Far Cry 2. Where the Far Cry games excel at giving players a world to explore, and, crucially, the ability to approach problems according to their individual play styles, Far Cry 2 finds surprising ways to integrate those ideas into its story. It’s full of characters you can meet, befriend, work with, and, eventually, kill. Your interactions and relationships with those characters change what happens in its missions and stories.

The events of the game become a part of its mechanics and turn the people you find into more than just quest-givers who speak cryptically in cutscenes. The idea takes the freedom that makes Far Cry exciting and applies it to its story, adding the nuance and choice I always hope will come out of these games, but never seems to materialize.

The Buddy system

At the start of Far Cry 2, you choose to control your player character from one of nine characters. Unlike many games, the people you pass on don’t just vanish after you choose, though — instead, they populate Far Cry 2’s African warzone setting as other mercenaries. You’ll find them scattered throughout the world, in small town bars, or as captives you can free in militia outposts. Free them or find them, and you can make friends — Once you’ve bonded, they’ll work with you, and even save your life.

Instead of just completing missions, you have choices to make, relationships to uphold…

Early on in the game, two of your “Buddies” — that’s what the game calls them — become your “Best Buddies” early in the game. Though picking your partners feels less than deliberate, who you find yourself pairing up with completely changes how you play through Far Cry 2. Whenever you get a job from one of the militias as the game goes on, you’ll get a call from your one of your Buddies, who always has an alternate idea of the way the mission should go down.

I’ve been hanging out with Paul Ferenc since the beginning of my playthrough. A suave merc, Paul always has a slightly more lucrative idea for how to handle jobs for the militias. In one mission, I’m charged with destroying the equipment of a hit squad brought in by the rival faction from the one that hired me. It turns out somebody’s been stealing medicine, and the hit squad is there to find that guy. It also turns out the person they’re looking for is, in fact, Paul.

Instead of going out into the middle of the desert to find and ambush the hit squad, Paul has a better idea. He wants me to infiltrate a villa not far away and convince the radio man there to send the wrong coordinates to the soldiers. Then, he and I can intercept them in the place of our choosing.

It’s the long way around, but I choose to follow Paul’s plan, which makes the mission a bit easier by putting the enemy soldiers at a disadvantage, away from their backup. It also buys me some favor with Paul. Later, when he asks me to assassinate a king as a favor to his son, I realized that maybe Paul is not such a great guy — but he seems like a fairly profitable friend to have.

If you want to be a hero, you can choose to act that way, but it isn’t a given.

As Far Cry 2 wears on, my relationship with Paul actively changes how the story plays out. The same goes for the other mercenaries I encounter. Some guys, like Marty, helped me get out of trouble. He saved my life in a few firefights, showing up to drag my wounded body to safety. Others, like Josip, who I rescued from a militia hideout, offer me new jobs. Not long ago, Josip asked me for help on a job blowing up one of the factions’ fuel stores, to stop them from running bombing attacks that would have caused massive collateral damage near the border. He seems like a good guy.

Building these mechanics and story choices around characters changes the Far Cry 2 story landscape significantly. Instead of just completing missions, you have choices to make, relationships to uphold, and fellow soldiers to save (or, sometimes, murder).

There’s one other great thing about having these other characters around: It doesn’t feel like you’re the only one running around Far Cry 2’s wilderness.

Superhero shenanigans

Far Cry 3 was an interesting game for its attempt to take on video game tropes through its story. The game puts you in the role of a rich white millennial guy on a thrill-seeking vacation with his friends, when everyone is captured by bad guys. You find some local mysticism, a bunch of guns, and the ultimate thrill to seek: Becoming an unkillable hero. Far Cry 3 comments on the idea that you’re vacationing in other people’s suffering as a lone gun-toting badass for the rest of its run. It’s a pretty self-aware look at video games as a whole.

Far Cry 2, on the other hand, offers a more grounded view of warring agendas and struggles for power in its warzone. As one of many other mercenaries you meet out in the world and fight with, your agenda is personal, and thus not necessarily a reflection of right and wrong. You’re working an angle, just like everyone else. If you want to be a hero, you can choose to act that way, but it isn’t a given.

Far Cry 2 used the idea of choices to make its story malleable.

Where the modern Far Cry games, starting with Far Cry 3, greatly expanded the series’ mechanics around wandering a world, doing whatever activities you wanted, Far Cry 2 used the idea of choices to make its story malleable, its missions more dynamic, and its characters more charismatic than all the games that followed.

Far Cry 2 is dated, sure, and it has many flaws, but as the field of open-world games keeps expanding its boundaries — making more places to go and things to do — they could stand to take a cue from Far Cry 2, and spend more time looking inward. There’s already a pretty good template of ideas for how Far Cry could do that — Ubisoft just has to look 10 years into its past.

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Phil Hornshaw
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Phil Hornshaw is an author, freelance writer and journalist living in Los Angeles. He is the co-author of The Space Hero's…
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